Critics say the program is too confusing and offers too many choices. But insurers and politicians are urging the public, particularly senior citizens, to have faith in Medicare's new prescription drug benefit program, which went into effect on January 1 of this year.
All Medicare beneficiaries, not just seniors, are eligible for what's called "Medicare Part D." Simply put, the new program is insurance for prescription drugs, and beneficiaries have 40 or more plans to choose from in Florida alone.
Florida Medicare beneficiary Patricia Morris reflects the concerns of many seniors who have been bombarding insurance companies with calls and e-mails as they try to sort out their options.
"Maybe I just didn't understand it but to me it was confusing. I need to figure out what the best plan is for me," she said.
So what is the best plan? If you enroll in Part D, you pay a monthly premium, an annual deductible and a portion of each prescription. For example, those insured by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida would pay a monthly premium of $45.89 for a basic plan. They'd also have a $5 co-pay for a generic drug prescription, and a $30 co-pay for a preferred brand.
The incentive - the Bush administration estimates Part D could cut prescription drug costs in half for most Medicare beneficiaries, and could eventually cover about 11 million low-income and disabled Americans.
"This is protection for now and the future," says Susan Walker, Medicare Part D. Team Leader for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida. "You never know when you're going to have that life-changing event that could require you to be on five or six drugs. Most seniors are on a fixed income and they're very savvy shoppers. They do their homework. And they realize the benefits of purchasing Part D both for their piece of mind and the financial benefit."
Walker says the insurance giant has seen a large volume of calls from seniors interested in the coverage to offset potential drug cost increases in the future. "We've had great response," she said, estimating "tens of thousands of people across Florida have enrolled."
"It's important to note, Medicare beneficiaries have time to compare plans before they make a decision. Beneficiaries have until May 15 to enroll without paying higher premiums and are urged by government officials, advocacy groups, and private insurers to do their research and ask questions. "Our job right now is to let people know there's help out there for them. This is a really important benefit and it's worth the time they need to take to learn it," says Cheryl Matheis of the American Association for Retired Persons.
Some other important tips: Insurers advise keeping a list of the name, dosage and cost of your prescriptions. Since different Part D plans cover different drugs, this will help you compare plans and choose the right one to meet your needs.
Also, enrollees in Medicare Advantage HMO and/or PPO plans may not have to do anything to receive Part D drug coverage in 2006. For example, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Medicare Advantage plans automatically provide Part D coverage to enrollees.
And people on a fixed income may qualify for assistance in covering the costs of premiums and co-pays. To find out if you're eligible, call 1-800-MEDICARE or visit www.medicare.gov or the Social Security Administration online at www.ssa.gov.
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